To the Jew first:
(Acts 13:46) – 46 Both Paul and Barnabas replied courageously, “It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles. NET
(Romans 1:16) – 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. NET
(Romans 2:10) – 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek. NET
(Romans 9:3-5) – 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed—cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, 4 who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen. NET
(Ephesians 2:11-12; 9-20) – 11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands— 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world……19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (NET)
Why was it “necessary to speak the word of God” (message of Jesus Christ) to the Jews first? The reason is because “to them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever!” (Ro 9:3-5).
But that still doesn’t really answer our question. Why was it “necessary” to give the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jews first? The answer has to be, because the people of Israel had to know that all that was promised and prophesied for their nation had finally come to fulfillment (Mark 1:14-15). They had to know that all that they had hoped for and looked forward to had finally come to fruition, that their Messiah had come and that He is now sitting upon His throne reigning over His kingdom (Acts 2:25-36). Israel had an erroneous idea about their Messiah and His kingdom, as well as about the land that was promised to them. The Apostles and prophets of Christ served to provide the understanding that they lacked. Thus, the New Testament Scriptures do the very same thing. They interpret the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly the OT promises and prophecies regarding Israel.
Therefore, it was “necessary” that they be the first to receive the message about Christ – because fundamentally – it’s first of all about them. They had to know that their time had finally come. However, their understanding was limited and flawed, so they had to be properly taught. This was the role that the Apostles and prophets served as the NT Scriptures were being written through them.
It was also “necessary” that the message of Christ be given to them first, because it was their message to the rest of the world. Think about it. It was believing Jews who were first given the responsibility of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ! The reason for that is because they now had the completed “word of God” (Acts 13:46) that began with them. Israel was central in the message of Christ and God’s plan for His people. All that was prophesied and promised to them was fulfilled in Christ and His Church, which began at Pentecost, which was attended by the 120 Jewish believers (including the Apostles) who are mentioned in Acts 1:15 and referred to in Acts 2:1.
The Apostle Peter himself understood this time period surrounding Christ and Pentecost as their (Israel) time of fulfillment, as prophesied in their Scriptures. We know this to be true because he explains it in his very first message to the people of Israel in Acts 2:14-36:
There are two parts to this sermon, Acts 2:14-21 and Acts 2:22-36. We’ll take a look at both parts, but verses 22-36 is what we’re the most interested in. In regard to the first part of the message, for our purposes we’re just going to cover verses 16 and 17.
(Acts 2:16) – 16 but this is that which hath been spoken through the prophet Joel:
Peter is very clear that what they were seeing and experiencing (Acts 2:1-4) was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32.
(Acts 2:17) – 17 And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour forth of my Spirit upon all flesh: And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, And your young men shall see visions, And your old men shall dream dreams:
“it shall be in the last days”
First, this cannot refer to the whole Church age. It’s been 2000 years since the Church began. Are we to believe that it’s been the “last days” for 2000 years? And what if it lasts another 2000 years? The idea that Peter is referring to the entire Church era is unreasonable. He’s obviously referring to a specific time in history. Otherwise, the phrase last days has no real meaning. We have to keep everything in proper perspective and try to see everything through the eyes of the Jews of that day — which was the transition period from Old Covenant to New Covenant.
Second, this cannot be referring to the last days of the world prior to the return of Christ. This is the position of many Bible teachers. They conclude that this prophecy was only partly fulfilled during that event on the day of Pentecost, and that it’s completely fulfilled in the last days before Jesus returns. However, like the first option, it’s an unreasonable interpretation. In verse 18, Peter emphasizes the fact that what they were seeing and experiencing was in “those days,” so that there would be no mistaking the time period of this Joel-prophecy.
Again, in order to interpret the event of Pentecost and this prophecy of Joel correctly, we must consider what was taking place in the history of Israel at that time. We have to view this from the perspective of the people of Israel – or more accurately – from the perspective of the believing Jews, such as Peter and the other Apostles. We have to consider God’s redemptive plan for His people at this point in time.
With that in mind, this has to refer to the “last days” of Israel under the Old Covenant (He 1:2; 1 Pe 1:20). Pentecost ushered in the Church age, the Christian/gospel era. It was the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant in Christ (He 8:8,13; He 9:15; He 10:9; He 12:24). This is the “last days” of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. This is the end of those days where God’s plan was focused on the people and nation of Israel. Pentecost marked the “official” end of that era, and the beginning of the Church era. Instead of working through the nation of Israel as His representatives in the world, He’s now working through His Church to reach the people of the world and to fulfill His plan for the world.
Also in view in the “last days” of this prophecy is the destruction of Jerusalem (and temple) in AD 70. Like Pentecost, it was a dramatic and visible sign of the “last days” of Israel under the old economy. It was the exclamation point! It marked the final end of God’s dealing with the nation of Israel. They served their purpose. God’s plan for them was now complete with the coming of Christ and His Church.
“I will pour forth of my Spirit upon all flesh”
On the day of Pentecost, believers experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Believers at that time and place received the Spirit and were baptized into the body of Christ, which is the Church (1 Cor 12:13,27; Eph 3:6; Eph 4:12; Eph 5:23). This marked the beginning of the Church and the Church age, the gospel era. What began then, continues until the return of Christ. While this was a one time event, the receiving of the Spirit (via regeneration) and baptism into Christ’s body, continues from that point forward as individuals place their faith in Him.
We must keep in mind that “the last days” are the last days of the Old Covenant, that time of transition to the New Covenant and the establishment of the Church in Christ. We make a serious interpretive mistake to go beyond the boundaries of those days.
The second part of Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:22-36) – with a focus on verses 29-36, will be covered in the next post, “2 of 2,” with a concluding discussion.